October - November 2000 Copyright 2000 by Peter Nepstad Issue 5

Home Page... Featured Reviews... Mailbag... Quiz... Movie Reviews (A-Z)... Archive... Links... Subscribe

Inscrutable Oriental plots World Domination

Western Visions:
Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril

The Yellow Peril

Yellow Peril Meets Red Menace

Fu Manchu: The Yellow Peril Personified


"The World Shall Hear from Me Again"

This article is in five parts. This is part one. To view one of the other parts, click on the numbers below.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

The Yellow Peril

In exploring Asian cultures through cinema, we must at times turn away from the cinema of the region and focus instead on the explorations of Asian cultures in Western cinema. These 'western visions' of Asia are at times entertaining, at times fascinating, at times repulsive, and almost always bizarre. They reveal more about Western culture, societal mores, and xenophobia than anything even remotely Asian. The question that must be asked then, is where did these ideas come from, that are portrayed so consistently in Western cinema?

But first, we must narrow the scope of our investigations. For 'Western' cinema, we will look predominantly at America, home of Hollywood. Asia is a big place, and by 'Asian' I suppose I must mean the same thing that 'Oriental' would have meant at the turn of the last century, which is, any country from Egypt through India and at last to the far east of China and Japan. All have problematic representations in Western Cinema. The representation of Asian-Americans (or rather, the complete lack thereof) forms another subset of the discussion. I propose in this article to discuss specifically Chinese representations in Western cinema, focusing first on the primary channels through which the west has historically come to 'know' the east, then on the tradition of 'Yellowface' acting which allows the west to play act their knowledge thus gained, without the interference of reality, and finally to explore the 'Fu Manchu' series of films as the most prominent example of these visions in Western cinema. Even with this narrowed scope, however, it will be necessary to occasionally turn to Asian-American, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean representations anyway, because of the Western tendency to confuse and blend the various cultures together.


The original Yellow Peril: Attila the Hun and his mongol horde, swooping through Europe in the 5th Century BC, displacing peoples such as the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, who then in turn pushed into the Roman Empire and sacked Rome. All of Europe lived under the shadow of invasion for some fifty years, until Attila dropped dead, the Huns dropped back, and the threat of invasion faded. But the image remained, reinforced by the later incursions of Genghis Khan: picture the Golden Horde, vicious, demonic peoples whose way of life is utterly foreign, who seem to have inhuman courage and endurance, who do not feel pain, who know nothing of the rules of war and do not take prisoners, who rape and pillage, who are invincible and unstoppable. Hold on to this image, as we now need to take it in its entirety and transpose it onto nineteenth-century America, where the idea of the Yellow Peril once again took root in Western society.

Chinese first immigrated to America in large quantities when reports of the California Gold Rush reached coastal China in 1849. Immigration reached its gold rush peak in 1852, when over 20,000 Chinese, mostly farmers from around the Canton area, headed over to work mines in search of gold. The immigration slowed drastically afterwards, until the late 1860s, when Chinese papers advertised looking for workers on the railroad, and the rush was on again.

With such a large number of immigrants in California, China could no longer be simply an exoticized and distant 'other.' So Chinese instead became a clear and present danger. California strongly wished to enter the Union as a Free State, that is, one without slavery, and it did so. Perhaps less widely known is that it wanted no blacks, free or slave, in the country, and instead keep California a pure, white land. Attempts were made to legally restrict entrance of California to only free, white people, some successful, some not. Although the debate began as black/white issue, it soon became clear that the Chinese would be a greater threat to California's ideal of a pure white land (in the 1850s, when California had only 4000 black residents, there were 47000 Chinese). At the same time, small mines were being pressured out of business by larger mining operations. Those Chinese who still worked various private mines became the outlet of white anger, and blamed for lost jobs. In 1854 the California Supreme Court ruled that the Chinese could not testify in court in any case in which a white person is a party. The threat of the Chinese to the working class and their jobs continued to be a constant theme up through the early 20th Century.

Having been driven out of mining and agriculture, and laid off as work on the trans-continental railroad came to a close, the Chinese immigrants moved into other work, such as manufacturing, laundering, and domestic occupations, running head first into another minority group: the Irish. The Chinese would often take lower wages than the Irish workers, and many employers found them by and large to be a far superior working group to the Irish, cleaner, more hard working. But the leaders of the Irish community took the opportunity to attempt to raise their own status in Anglo-Saxon society, by promoting a sort of pan-ethnic whiteness, defining Irish and Anglo-Saxon peoples to stand together in a 'white' category, as separate from 'black' or 'yellow' races. They used the imagery of the Yellow Peril -- legions of Chinese sweeping into the country, taking away the good honest work of the white man. They were for the most part very successful. Even today in America, the lumping together of all white races is done as a matter of course, without thought.

American legislators became obsessed with stemming the oriental tides that they feared would soon overtake them. In 1790, the Naturalization Act explicitly stated Naturalization as a citizen was only possible for "free white persons" only. This did not necessarily exclude Asians, as many people considered the Asiatic races to fall into the 'white' category (at least, George Washington did). In 1870, the abolition of slavery prompted a change in the wording, and it was amended to include persons of African descent. It was also amended to specifically exclude persons from China. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning not only Naturalization of peoples from China, but immigration as well. It allowed for some loopholes, which were quickly closed up with an 1884 amendment. Ironically, just a couple years later, the Statue of Liberty is unveiled in New York City.

Having stemmed the illusory tide, there was still the question of what to do with the Chinese immigrants already residing in the United States. Race riots in San Francisco and elsewhere made it clear that they were seldom welcome. They represented another facet of the Yellow Peril: the threat of miscegenation. Immigration policy kept the amount of Chinese women at a bare minimum, in an attempt to discourage immigrants from permanent residence. At the same time, coincedentally, far more Irish women survived the potato famine and immigrated than did men. Their prospects for finding a suitable Irish man rather limited, then, a statistically insignificant few did in fact marry Chinese men. Even this small amount was unacceptable to the Irish community, trying at that time to create a clear color line between the two races. In fact, the term 'micegenation' was coined by Irish pamphleteers decrying inter-racial marriage (the earlier term, 'amalgamation,' was not as negative as apparently they wanted it to be). Even today, the threat of miscegenation looms. In American cinema, although white men are often romatically engaged with asian women, only very, very rarely will you see an asian man and white woman romantically involved with each other, and even then the relationship is seldom demonstrated explicitly.

A vast hoarde of the unknowable other, poised to take over our jobs, our women, our country. This is the image of the Yellow Peril, set in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It would prove to be a remarkably resilient vision, which has lasted up until the present day. The next section will explore the transformations of the Yellow Peril myth in the twentieth Century.

Next: The Yellow Peril meets The Red Menace >>>>>

Thank you for visiting The Illuminated Lantern! All contents including reviews, essays, and images are copyright 2000 by Peter Nepstad. All Rights Reserved. Movie stills are their respective owners and are considered to fall under the Fair Use clause of US Copyright law, which allows replication of images and text for purposes of analysis and review. If you have questions, comments, or would like to report a problem with the site or with site links, please click here.